P.E.A.C.E.

P is For (Chris Sims)

Peace can enhance a performance. Endurance peacefully is enormous. Eradicating indifference, this is significant.

We pursue the kindred with a purpose. Peace is incredible. Indicating that we can stop hating.

Hope in peace is definitely possible. Predicting bright futures, we connect in person, on cell phones, through the connections on our computers.

Connecting, six degrees of separation, we imagine a most peaceful nation. Liberation. A continuation.

Visualizing a world yet to come. Peace is the sun. We sit on Sundays hoping for a peaceful transformation.

P makes a sound. We pronounce prophetically the “peace language.” Which equates love, life, positive energy, divinity. Peace is who I am. Peace is what I was born to be.

We take peace to the people, peace to the streets, peace to the Occupy movement, peace as improvement to politics gone bad. Peace is needed now, not to be considered something we used to have.

Worldwide: marches, gatherings, demonstrations, war torn nations, in soup lines, empty factories and assembly lines, we all seek peace.

 

E is for Energy (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Energy is necessary for peace. Energy unleashed and available for the work of hands holding hands, hands holding hammers for pounding nails, hands holding sandbags before storms, hands holding blankets around homeless children, women, men.

Hands holding signs against war, holding signs against greed, holding signs against hate, holding signs for peace, for fairness, for justice, for loving who you love, for being who you are.

Hands holding hands, keeping us together, connected, one, whole, unified.

Energy is necessary for the making of peace because so much energy is harnessed for the making of war. So many hands hold in place systems that build the weapons of war: the same systems that can’t seem to house every person, can’t seem to feed every person, can’t seem to give health care to every person. The same systems that put a bullet in every gang-banger’s gun, that launch a drone strike over every village in Waziristan, that build a new Jim Crow prison cell for one out of every three black and brown men.

This is no time for entropy, for running down to disorder.

This is a time for organizing our energy for the waging of peace, organizing our hearts for the collective, common yearning for peace, organizing our voices for the collective common speaking of peace, organizing our melodies for the collective, common singing of peace, organizing our bodies for the collective, common dancing of peace, organizing our lives for collective, common peaceful living.

Peace is gonna take energy, organized energy.

 

A is for Ascension (Chris Sims)

A is for us ascension, not for us depending on politicians to pull us out of poverty and homelessness. There is no peace in not having any progress.

We can ascend if only we begin to take another look at being our brothers and sisters  keeper. At “we are the change we’ve been waiting for.” Taking a collective attitude towards allowing ourselves to recognize our own leadership.

Peaceful people asking the right questions of our leaders, our representatives, our school districts, our bosses. The losses have cost us too much.

What impoverished woman knows peace? What homeless man sees peace? What unequally educated child experiences peace?

We can acquire this ascension. We can remain determined. We can create our own jobs. Self-sufficiency in a time where talk is too much. We need real answers.

All we have is us. All we need is us.

Conversations, collectives, calls for action.

We will rise. We will elevate. We will accomplish a better way by being in unison and peace amongst one another.

 

C is for Contemplation (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Yes we will accomplish a better way.

We each have a role to play in making peace, crafting peace, waging peace, sustaining peace.

What is my role? What is your role?

Ah. . . . Good question. Pause. Wait a moment. Wait another moment. Breathe. It’s OK. Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. The movement won’t move that quickly, won’t leave you behind, won’t leave us behind. Building a lasting peace takes time—takes time after time after time.

Take time for contemplation, because starting out, we must be centered.

Starting out, we must be grounded.

Starting out, we must be mindful.

Starting out, we must be peaceful inside.

Starting out we must know, trust, believe in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits:

All life is sacred.

All life is holy.

All life is music, is magic, is mystery.

All life matters.

Knowing, trusting, believing this in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits will keep us steady,

keep us focused,

keep us resilient,

keep us strong,

keep us gentle,

keep us creative,

keep us courageous

keep us keeping our siblings.

Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. Only peaceful people build peaceful neighborhoods, peaceful communities, peaceful cities, peaceful nations, a peaceful world.

Take time for contemplation.

 

E is For…  (Chris Sims)

Elevation; equality; Echoes of ancestors and freedom fighters Who once fought for peace. Who could see the coming nations living in a land of peace.

E is for elegance: the elegance of children smiling, because they know peace and can teach us adults more about peace.

E is for education: we must educate one another about calm, serenity, collective behavior that creates peace.

Positive. Energy. Always. Creates. Elevation.

We need that in this leading nation. This struggling nation.

Peace is patience. Peace is power. Let peace be the word of the hour. The word of the hour.

May all of the children whisper peace in their sleep. May all of the women sing about peace. May all of the men gather in peace as we live in multitudes and moments of community.

Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, John Lennon’s, and Ghandi’s peace existing today.

May we have peace.

May we seek peace.

E is for an eternal peace.

Peace for eternity.

 

Being Thankful in a Thankless World

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her meditation, “Saying Grace,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue reminds us “wise women and men from every [faith] tradition teach that gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life because it leads us to all the rest.”[1] This rings true to me. Pausing before a meal—even a brief pause—to be mindful of how the food actually arrived on the plate can lead us back through all those people who had some hand in getting it to the plate: the cashiers, the shelf-stockers, the grocery store managers, the truck drivers, the loaders, the processors, the pickers, the planters, the slaughterhouse workers—and then beyond the people, back further to soil, water, sun—and then further still to the insight that “everything hinges on everything else,” that we are fundamentally dependent, that we do not exist apart from a reality greater than ourselves. I think Rev. McTigue is right. A pause—even a brief pause—to express our gratitude can lead us to “all the rest.” Perhaps most importantly it can instill in us the desire to give back in some way, to live not simply as recipients of the earth’s abundance, but as people who actively engage the wider world, people who work for justice and peace, people who work for healing and repair, people who work to sustain the earth and all its creatures. Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of participation, commitment, action. Indeed, the final words of Rev. McTigue’s prayer of gratitude are that we may be strong for the work of our world.[2]

Similarly, in a 2007 article in the Unitarian Universalist World Magazine entitled “The Heart of our Faith,” the Rev. Galen Guengerich writes that where the central discipline of Judaism is obeying God’s commandments, and the central discipline of Christianity is loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and the central discipline of Islam is submitting to the will of God, the central discipline of Unitarian Universalism ought to be gratitude.[3] He says a discipline of gratitude—that is, integrating into our lives daily rituals that enable us to recognize and name the things for which we are grateful—inevitably “reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and the world around us for everything that matters.” And from this recognition of dependence flows what he calls an “ethic of gratitude” which “demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”[4] Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

Our ministry theme for October is gratitude. It’s an obvious theme for this time of year. The thanksgiving season is beginning. Farmers are bringing in the final harvest here in New England and throughout the planet’s more northern reaches. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations are common in many parts of the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Being a father of elementary school students I can anticipate assignments related to gratitude and thanksgiving. My boys will create adorable, little booklets about the things for which they are thankful. They will trace their hands to make turkeys. And many ministers preach sermons on gratitude at this time of year. I become a bit squeamish when it’s my turn to preach that sermon since there are only so many ways to name the importance of gratitude in our lives. Yet we keep preaching it. I’ve yet to find a colleague in any faith tradition who thinks gratitude is overrated.

So this is the message I want you to take with you today: a discipline of gratitude—finding some way to regularly call forth a feeling of gratitude for all that is good in our lives—reminds us of our dependence on a reality larger than ourselves and ought to inspire us to give back to our communities and to the world in some sustained way. While I’m convinced no controversy surrounds this message; and while I’m utterly confident that you already know this, that gratitude is a no-brainer, that we should be grateful for all the blessings of our lives, the fact remains: gratitude is never as simple as it sounds. We don’t always come to it easily. We can’t just make ourselves feel a certain way. For most of us, gratitude takes practice.

Most of you are parents. Some of you are actively parenting. Others have raised their children into adulthood. I suspect most of you who are parents—and even those of you who aren’t parents but who have been around children in that elementary school age range—have had the experience of doing something nice for a child—taking them to a movie, buying some toy they’ve asked for, taking them to their favorite restaurant—something slightly out of the ordinary and very nice—only to then watch the child behave like a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon. When it happens, you the parent can’t imagine this is the child you’ve been raising. It’s mystifying. You didn’t teach them to act like this. You didn’t model this behavior for them. You’ve spoken clearly to them, many times, about appropriate behavior, especially in public places. You try to shut it down with your own polite reasoning, but it doesn’t work. The child escalates. You begin to get angry. The next words out of your mouth—your tone bordering on sarcastic—are some version of “a little thanks would be nice,” or “How about ‘thank you’?” Does this ring a bell? I can’t recall my parents ever saying this to me, but I remember being a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon and I’m positive my ears heard some version of those words. “A little thanks would be nice.”

I suspect there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t born grateful. We may be born with the capacity to feel gratitude, but expressing it doesn’t come naturally. The phrase “thank you” doesn’t roll off our tongues once we’ve learned rudimentary speech, at least not as quickly as “I want,” “gimme” and “mine.” Of course children are more complex than their selfish impulses. Most children seem inherently trusting, loving, joyful, filled with awe, creative and truthful in the sense that they don’t naturally censor themselves. But “thank you” is not one of their inclinations. Not at first. They need to be taught.

I also suspect that even once a child learns to say “thank you,” we still haven’t taught them to recognize and name the feeling of gratitude when it rises in them. What we’ve actually taught them is how to be polite regardless of how they feel. That is, we might hear them say “thank you,” but it’s only because we’ve told them to, not because they actually feel it. I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle and they’ve have had to grow up too fast. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful “for all that is our life,”[5] as the hymn says, until we’ve had the kinds of experiences that move us out of childhood, experiences that enable us to gain perspective on our lives, to view our lives from multiple angles, to compare our lives to other lives, to recognize how hard life can be at times, to recognize that it means something when someone else does something nice for us unbidden, when someone else lends us a hand when we’re in need, when someone else supports us in our times of crisis and struggle, when someone else notices our good work. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.

And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

But it still takes practice. I’ve given this sermon the title, “Being Thankful in a Thankless World.” I trust you all know I am not as cynical and hopeless about the world as this title suggests, but I do observe trends in our culture—behavioral trends—that drive a wedge between us and our capacity to feel gratitude. In doing my research for this sermon I was drawn to a blog post entitled “The Thankless World of the Conscientious Science Writer”[6] from Cynthia Closkey,[7] who who runs a web design firm called Big Big Design.[8] Closkey’s post led me to another post entitled “You’ve Got Mail, You Idiot,”[9] by an independent science writer named Christie Aschwanden,[10] who says that after twelve years of science writing she has learned the hard lesson that if you “tell readers that they’re wrong about something they know in their heart to be true … they will send you hate mail.” For example, she wrote an article stating that what determines whether cancer progresses is tumor biology, not a person’s attitude toward their cancer. She received a letter in response stating, “You are no scientist. You should not write. You are a foolish person.” Her article on climate change elicted this: “Get beyond your pathetic left-wing angst over the envirofacist lies.” An article contending that “taking a multivitamin won’t make you any healthier,” brought forth this gem: “You call yourself a ‘science writer’??!! Your article was all lies.”[11]

What Aschwanden is describing is not unique to her. It’s actually a widespread mode of social interaction in our nation. It’s the ‘gotcha” mentality, the red-state blue-state mentality, the liberal vs. conservative mentality. It’s road rage. It’s the phenomenon of negative political ads and this idea that a political debate can now be won not on the strength or veracity of a candidate’s arguments but simply by how frequently they interrupt their opponent, as if their belligerence and rudeness reveals some measure of their fitness for leadership. At the end of Thursday evening’s Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked a question submitted to her from a decorated war veteran, something along the lines of “aren’t you embarrassed by the volume of negative political ads? Why can’t the candidates refrain from tearing each other down and start to build the country up?” In their responses, both candidates thanked the veteran for his service and proceeded to tear each other down. I found it not only embarrassing, but infuriating.

I’m naming this particular kind of behavior because it has become so ubiquitous in politics, journalism, religion, and so many areas of public life. We can lean away from it and observe it and lament how common it has become—I can name it and critique it right here in this sermon—but it seems to be increasing. And I admit I get caught up in it from time to time. There is something seductive about it. I think it speaks to us at a pre-rational level. It grabs our emotions before we have time to think. It’s reptilian. It’s childish. It reminds me of my kids fighting in the back seat of the car over who touched who or who crossed over onto whose side. But for them it’s developmentally appropriate. For adults it’s not. In adults it invites us to close ranks, close down, lock in, box in, shut out, ignore, dismiss, interrupt and even, at times, attack. These are precisely the behaviors that prevent us from gaining perspective on our lives; from viewing our lives from multiple angles; from remembering how hard life can be at times; from remembering what it’s like to experience suffering and loss, and that there are far more important things at stake than belittling someone with whom we disagree—all of which we need in order to feel genuine gratitude.

That is, the contentious, polarizing, sound-bite craving, zinger-worshipping aspects of our culture lead us toward petty conflict and away from gratitude. I actually don’t believe we live in a thankless world, but in the midst of this cultural nastiness, gratitude takes practice. Gratitude requires discipline. It’s not the discipline of politeness, for while children need to learn please and thank you, our politeness is not an indication of how we actually feel. Perhaps this discipline of gratitude begins with saying grace, with finding ways to name all we’re thankful for. But I think gratitude arises ultimately from a discipline of deep self-reflection, a discipline of bearing witness to all that is our life and allowing ourselves to fully grasp our limits, our fragility, and our dependence on one another and the world around us. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us in turn to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others are indeed precious, sacred, holy. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others, in the grand scheme of things, are unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts. Such recognitions make it possible for us to feel thankful in a thankless world.

Earlier we spoke together words from the poet Denise Levertov that capture for me the heart of this self-reflection I’m calling for. She says “an awe so quiet I don’t know where it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me.”[12] As the thanksgiving season begins in New England, my prayer for each of us is that we may find ways to keep our hearts and minds above and beyond the fray; that we may find ways to reflect on all that is our lives; that we may experience awe in response to the gift of life; that gratitude—deep and abiding gratitude—may rise up in us like a song; and that we may be strengthened for the work of our world.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Saying Grace,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 68.

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

[3] Guengerich, Galen, “The Heart of Our Faith,” UU World Magazine, Spring 2007. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11144.shtml.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Findlow, Bruce, “For All That is Our Life,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #128.

[12] Levertov, Denise, “An Awe So Quiet,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #479.

 

I Can Believe

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This past summer I read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods. Jenn Richard recommended it back in June. It sounded like good summer reading for me, and it was. In this story all the gods are still alive. That is, any god any group of people ever brought with them to America—whether as explorers, immigrants or slaves—as well as the gods of the Native American nations, many of whom arrived in more ancient times travelling with immigrants across the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska—any god any person ever worshipped in America is still alive. Except … no one worships them anymore. Nobody remembers them. So, they lack power. They’re weak. That’s the premise: gods and goddesses are powerful when people worship them. As people forget them they fade. They don’t die, but they become shadows of their former selves. They’re immortal, but they struggle to survive. They live in dingy tenement buildings in forgotten towns. They make their livings through odd jobs, petty crime, prostitution. They aren’t particularly admirable beings.

These forgotten gods also believe they’re facing a new threat to their meager existence. Make no mistake, Americans still practice worship—but not in churches, synagogues and mosques. Neil Gaiman has something else in mind: Americans worship technology and entertainment. If our ancestors couldn’t live without their Gods, we post-moderns can’t live without our computers, televisions and cell phones. As we humans spend more and more time enmeshed with our electronic devices, turning to them not only for information, but also for comfort, companionship, guidance, and even community, our relationship to them begins to look more and more like worship. These devices—and the industries that produce and deploy them—become the new gods—our solace and our salvation.  Thus the old gods feel threatened. The book’s plot unfolds around preparations for a final battle between the old and the new.

Along the way we meet the character Sam, a student at the University of Wisconsin studying art history and women’s studies, an aspiring sculptor, a barista at a local coffee shop. She apparently has some divine qualities, though she’s a minor character and we don’t learn much about her. When I first read her monologue about her beliefs, beginning with “I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not,”[1] I became very excited. I could write a sermon about this!  I love her brazen embrace of contradictions, the way she runs warring theological ideas together as if they have always co-existed peacefully. She says, “I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.”[2] I read her monologue over and over again, wondering: is she describing a deeply examined, mature faith, a faith strong and nuanced enough to embrace these contradictions and yet still guide her and sustain her through all life’s challenges? Could this really work? Or is she just showing off her liberal arts education, sophomorically spouting some version of whatever conspiracy theory occurs to her, and expressing nothing more than a rebellious, youthful exuberance that won’t offer sufficient spiritual sustenance as she grows older? Is she describing an authentic, generous spirituality, or is she just too lazy to make a serious theological choice?

I ask these questions because, even though she’s fictional, I want Sam’s widespread believing to be real. I want this kind of believing to be useful for our spiritual lives. Frankly, I’m even a bit envious of Sam’s beliefs. I have an experience of feeling caught between two contradictory beliefs and recognizing that ministry would flow so much more smoothly if I could just believe both and not worry about having to choose one over the other. Some of you will remember I raise the question from time to time in my sermons about whether we live in the midst of one truth or many truths. To make the case for there being only one, ultimate truth, I might refer to the ancient South Asian story of the blind men and the elephant where each man touches a part of the elephant and describes the elephant based on the part he touches. The man who touches the leg says the elephant is like a pillar. The man who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, and so on. The elephant is a metaphor for the existence of one truth. The whole elephant may be beyond our reach; we may each, at best, have access to only a small piece of it, but no matter what we believe, we’re all touching the same elephant—we all touch a piece of the one truth. [3] But then, to make the case for there being many distinct truths, even contradictory truths, I might just ask how it is possible for me, as one who ministers to a congregation that includes atheists, theists, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans and Christians, to say there is only one truth. If there is only one, then some of us—most of us, in fact—are wrong. That doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not convinced atheists and theists are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced Buddhists and Christians are somehow touching the same elephant. I’m not convinced all religions, at their core, are ultimately the same.[4] So which is it, one truth or many?

I inevitably feel some pressure to answer this question definitively. But I can’t. I’m persuaded by both arguments—I love the idea that there is one truth beyond our knowing; I love the idea that there are many distinct truths in one room. I can’t give up on either of these claims and I’ve never known quite how to resolve what feels to me like a deep contradiction. There’s a part of me that’s always felt like a bit of a fraud for not being able to offer a definitive answer. But when I reflect more deeply, I realize the problem is not the presence of a contradiction: the problem is the pressure to choose one side in this or any other theological debate and be done with it. The problem is the pressure to choose one spiritual identity and be done with it. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Define yourself. Are you a UU Christian, a UU Buddhist, a UU Pagan, a UU Theist, a UU Humanist? Define yourself. In your spiritual practice are you contemplative? Are you community-oriented? Are you ritualistic? Are you a social justice activist? Define yourself.

I understand why we crave definition. Having a clear self-definition, spiritual or otherwise, helps us communicate to the rest of the world: this is me! This is who I am. See me. Hear me. Distinguish me. Validate me. Value me. But sometimes succumbing to the pressure to define does more harm than good. What happens if you have a hunch that both sides of an argument are somehow true? What happens if you have a feeling that both sides of a contradiction are somehow true? What if two religions express radically different cosmologies, but your intuition tells you both are somehow true? Or what if you sense something is true even though it doesn’t make any sense, even though everything you’ve ever been taught tells you it can’t be true. I think it’s so important for us in situations like this, as liberal religious people, as spiritual seekers, as Unitarian Universalists to learn to follow our hunches, our feelings, our intuitions. If we’re forced to define our position, if we have to choose a side, if we have to reject an idea because we’ve been taught it can’t be true, then we risk missing something. We cut ourselves off from a range of possibilities.

Think of what we know about light. Sam reminds us in her monologue that light is both a wave and a particle—a contradiction. One of the first lessons aspiring physicists learn in the study of quantum mechanics is that as soon as we measure light—as soon as we try to define it—the wave collapses into the particle. We can observe the particle, but we miss the wave. The range of possibilities vanishes in that moment.

 

Sam also mentions “a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time.” This is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a famous
thought experiment put forth in 1935 by the Austrian physicist Erwin Shrödinger as a way to talk about problems in quantum mechanics. The cat inside the box is both alive and dead—a contradiction—and only when we open the box does it become one or the other. The quantum world—the sub-atomic world—is like this. There are actually infinite possibilities at any given time.  When we measure—when we open the box—when we touch the elephant—we collapse these infinite possibilities into one definite state. But this doesn’t mean the other possibilities weren’t real. The fact that we can only observe the particle doesn’t mean the wave was a fiction.

I’m making a similar claim about our spiritual lives, about our beliefs. When we define ourselves spiritually or theologically by saying “I believe X” or “I don’t believe Y,” we risk shutting out a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes we need to do it. Sometimes we are very comfortable with a clearly defined identity: humanist, atheist, theist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. But there’s always a risk. We risk missing something. What appeals to me about Sam’s expression of belief is her unwillingness to miss anything. She says, essentially, I will not collapse the wave; I will not open the box; I will not resolve my contradictions; I will accept and embrace them, I will live with them, and in so doing I will inhabit a universe of possibility.

I confess that, despite feeling drawn to Sam’s way of believing, I’m not exactly sure how to do it. My intellect doesn’t want to go there. It’s hard for me to say with a straight face, “I believe in a personal god and I believe in an impersonal god and I believe in a godless universe.” It’s hard for me to say it with the conviction that Sam brings to it which, again, is why I wonder whether it’s a truly tenable spirituality. She is, after all, a work of fiction. But in the very least, were Sam or anyone to put such live-with-the-contradictions believing into practice, they would have access to a wide range of spiritual resources to meet life’s challenges. I think back to the time when my son’s heart condition was diagnosed in utero and we realized it was going to be a difficult medical path for a few years and possibly for his entire life; or the time when my brother’s daughter was still-born, or when my father was at the peak of his struggle with alcoholism—hard, painful times in my life. I’ve learned that people progress spiritually through such times, that there’s an arc to the spiritual experience of struggle and difficulty, and sometimes it includes a period of such despair, confusion and loneliness that all one can do is let go and trust. It strikes me that in such times belief in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do makes sense. Such belief, which includes longing for an end to pain, becomes a spiritual resource. Such belief can reduce anxiety, bring calm, bring a sense of being held, bring a sense of resilience. It can carry a person through hardship at the moment when they feel they can’t take another step.

Then there are those moments—those mystical moments—when people report an experience of profound unity, a oneness with everything there is, a connection to all life. Unitarian Universalists who have such experiences typically report having them outdoors, when surrounded by the natural world—the mountain top view, crashing waves, leaves in autumn, the rebirth of spring, sunrise and sunset. Of course, communion with nature is only one source of these mystical moments. They come in worship, in community, through working to achieve a vision, through creative endeavor, through activism. Wherever and whenever it comes, people report experiencing the world as sacred, experiencing life as sacred, experiencing everything as holy now. It stikes me that in such moments a belief in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive makes sense. A belief in some divine essence at the heart of creation makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource. It inspires reverence for life. It inspires us to care for the earth and for each other. It inspires us to renew our commitments and to live by our principles. It inspires us to be hopeful, loving people.

Then there are those moments when we take stock of what we know about life and the world and how it all fits together. We take stock of the myths people have told throughout the ages, the supernatural explanations for things that at one time were unexplainable but which now even children comprehend. We bear witness to the enormous power of the human mind to understand the universe. We watched just this week as NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, discovered what appears to be an ancient streambed on the surface of the red planet. We watched this past July as scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle that accounts, at least in theory, for the existence of mass in the universe. Like the theory of evolution, this so-called “god particle” offers a compelling, non-supernatural alternative to the creation story in the Book of Genesis. We take stock of the findings of science and human achievement and in response, belief in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck makes sense. And such belief becomes a spiritual resource, calling on us to trust ourselves—to trust our instincts and our intellect, to trust our feelings and our intuitions, to trust in our own creativity and our capacity for innovation, to trust, ultimately, in the human spirit.

There. Three contradictory theologies that when taken together offer a rich set of spiritual resources. I’m still wondering: is this an authentic, generous spirituality, or simply a failure to make a serious theological choice? For now I’m going with the former. Light is both a particle and a wave, and while we can only observe the particle, we know the wave is there. We know the wave is real. And so it is with our spiritual lives. While we have to define ourselves from time to time, my instincts tell me we inhabit a universe of possibility—and I don’t want to miss anything if I can help it. Are there pantheons full of ancient deities still longing for the life and power human worship gives them? Are there new gods of technology and entertainment vying for our dedication? Who knows? But either way it seems to me, if such a universe of possibility awaits, then it is good and right to say “I can believe.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Gaiman, Neil,  American Gods (New York: Harpertorch, 2001) p. 394.

[2] Ibid., pps. 394-395.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “One Truth, Many Truths . . . Any Truths?” Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 8, 2011. See: http://uuse.org/one-truth-many-truths-any-truths/

[4] Ibid.

Transitions

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

There’s a reading in our hymnal entitled, “Change Alone is Unchanging.”[1] It’s attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklietos, also known as the weeping philosopher. “In searching for the truth,” he says, “be ready for the unexpected. Change alone is unchanging.” These words ring true to me, the same truth I encounter in Vanessa Rush Southern’s meditation, “Expect Chaos.” She says, “Perhaps change is life. Frustrations and snags are life. Maybe instead of being taught to expect stability and predictability, we should have been taught to expect chaos or at least constant transitions.”[2]

Change alone is unchanging. As long as I’m alive—and conscious of my living—I can expect to experience change. Certainly there will be changes in the wider world around me: nations and governments change; cultures and social norms change; human knowledge and technology change; ecology and climate change; the seasons and the positions of the stars in the night sky change. Certainly there will be changes in the more immediate patterns of my life: my children will grow older and my role in their life will change. My parents will grow older and my role in their lives will change. My wife will grow older; I will grow older. I can reasonably expect changes in my work life. I can reasonably expect changes in where I live. People will come in and out of my life—friends, parishioners, colleagues, peers, activists. I can expect the changes retirement brings. I can expect the changes illness brings. I can expect the changes loss brings—the changes that come when a loved-one dies.

And as a result of all these changes and transitions I can also expect my inner life to change in response: what I believe, what matters to me, the things to which I feel called to dedicate time and energy, my understanding of the Sacred. All of it has already changed through the course of my life. I can only conclude more change lies ahead.

Change alone is unchanging. I suspect this is not news to you. At some place deep in our bones we sense this idea is true. It speaks directly to Unitarian Universalists’ common yearning for a religious life not bound by doctrines, creeds and revelations presented to us as the one, eternal truth, a permanent etchings upon stone tablets, as the final word revealed once long ago and sealed forever. We long for spiritual openness. We are comfortable, even, with spiritual open-endedness. We long for a spiritual community that asks us not to submit to one truth but to explore truth from many perspectives and construct meaning from many sources. We long for a faith informed as much by scientific discovery and changes in human knowledge as it is by ancient wisdom. We certainly don’t long for chaos, and we want our children to experience stability and predictability. But when we encounter this idea that “change alone is unchanging” often something stirs in us. Often our gut response is “yes.” We want to hear more because we experience our lives, all life, the earth, the universe not as static, but as dynamic. Change is life.

But let’s be honest: as a concept, as an intellectual proposition, as a starting place for deeper theological reflection, this idea is fabulous. Change alone is unchanging. But as a practical matter, when it comes to dealing with day-to-day life, when it comes to navigating our life transitions, it’s not so fabulous. It doesn’t matter what height of spiritual discipline you’ve achieved, the unexpected can really mess up your day. Even Jesus lost it from time to time. For human beings (and I’m sure for other creatures as well) change is hard. As spiritually and intellectually exhilarating as the idea of change is, the physical and emotional experience can be a real drag. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why the ancient Greeks referred to Heraklietos as the weeping philosopher.

Our ministry theme for September is transitions, an obvious theme for this time of year in New England as summer vacation ends, students return to school, the leaves begin to change colors and fall, local farmers begin their final harvest of the year, apples and pears have ripened, and the grocery stores now offer orange and black Halloween promotions. I also note the Jewish High Holy Days occur during this season. This year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening. For Jews the High Holy Days, which culminate in ten days on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be understood as a time of transition, a time of reflecting on the past year and preparing for the next. As we said in our opening words from Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Now is the time for turning…. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.”[3] Here’s another truth: successfully navigating the transitions of our lives requires us to break with old habits. Perhaps change is life, but we are also creatures of habit and habits by their very nature are hard to break.

When I use the word habit I’m not speaking simply of addictions like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or overeating, though I certainly include them. I’m speaking more generally of habits as modes of life to which we become deeply accustomed. As an example, I go back to the summer of 1999 when Stephany and I first moved to Connecticut. Over the previous ten years I had grown deeply accustomed to my life in Boston. I was grounded in the student culture in Cambridge. I was grounded in the local rock music scene. I was grounded in my ties to the Unitarian Universalist Association which is headquartered in Boston. My twin brother and some of my best friends lived there. I was embedded in a rich network of peers, clergy, UUs, musicians, activists and Ultimate (Frisbee) players. I knew all the running roots along the Charles River. I knew my way around by car and public transportation. My life had a certain stability and predictability to it. We moved to Connecticut that summer and I became ill. I was chronically dizzy and nauseated. I lacked appetite. I lost weight. I drank ginger tea all the time, hoping it would settle my stomach. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. It took many medical tests to prove to me there was nothing physically wrong with me, and two or three years of therapy to convince me that what had caused these symptoms was anxiety brought on by a major life transition. Put another way, I had been happily and healthily habituated to my life in Boston; and as much as I welcomed a life-change intellectually, making the transition turned out to be immensely difficult. As much as I was genuinely excited to begin my professional career in a new location with new people, when I allowed myself to look closely at the life I had left behind in Boston and get in touch with what leaving meant to me, I realized I was sad. I was grieving my younger Boston self and really didn’t know who my new, professional minister self was. Move to a suburb? What? Buy a house? What? Have children? What?

 

I’m not suggesting my experience of a big life transition is somehow a universal experience, but I do suspect that at the heart of our major life transitions there is always some amount of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, and it stays with us. The Rev. Robert Walsh writes, “Sometimes tears come to my eyes. Is it about the war? Is it from getting older? Or is it just autumn? I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.”[4]

A book called A General Theory of Love, published in 2000 by three psychiatrists, describes the way our relationships, particularly our very close, intimate relationships, shape us—not only shape our emotions and our outlook on life, but shape our body chemistry, our physiology, the development of our neural pathways. When two people live together in a long-term, intimate relationship, when they share meals, leisure time, vacations, chores, money, a bed, child-rearing, etc., over time their bodies become deeply intertwined. Here’s a quote. “The human body constantly fine-tunes many thousands of physiologic parameters—heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars, hormones, salts, ions, metabolites…. [But] an individual does not direct all of his own functions. [An intimate partner] transmits regulatory information that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, immune function and more…. The reciprocal process occurs simultaneously: the first person regulates the physiology of the second, even as he himself is regulated.”[5] This is why living when a loved-one has died isn’t just emotionally painful; it physically hurts. This other body that has been regulating aspects of our physiology, this other body to which we have become deeply accustomed—to which we have become habituated—is no longer present, no longer close by.

 

I assume it’s not just intimate loved ones who regulate our bodies in this way, although they may have the most impact. I assume where we live—the place we call home, our neighborhood—regulates our bodies to some degree. Where we work regulates our bodies to some degree. Our daily routine regulates our bodies to some degree. We become habituated in all sorts of ways. We become grounded in all sorts of ways. Thus any transition, any change that requires us to break out of our habits will bring some pain, even if it’s a change we want. I was ready to leave Boston in 1999. It was the right time for a life transition. But I see it so clearly now: despite how right it seemed, my body was still wired for its patterns of life in Boston. And because I didn’t know I grieving that life, I became ill.

One of the standard seminary books on understanding grief is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which he writes about his experience after the death of his wife (whom he refers to as H.) and his recognition of how deeply ingrained in him the habits of being her husband were. He writes, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember I have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it.”[6] I assume something like this happens with any life transition. A new school means different teachers, different peers, a different pattern to the day—the old ways have to shift. You or your partner receive a life-threatening diagnosis and in the blink of an eye all routine becomes geared towards treatment; life’s daily familiarities and pleasures become elusive such that even food tastes differently. You lose a job—especially one that really matched your identity and sense of calling—and you must break with the habits of that job. You have a baby, and you must break with old habits. You retire, and you must break with old habits. Aging at any time in our lives, but certainly as our bodies and our minds begin to decline, requires that we break with old habits. Or consider becoming sober: for addicts the body is utterly enmeshed with a substance, completely regulated by the need to have that substance. Getting sober is a grief-ridden process. Caroline Knapp, the late Boston-based journalist, said of her addiction to alcohol, “this is a love story. It’s about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling. It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without.”[7]

At the heart of our life transitions there is always some degree of grief, some sadness at the loss of what came before, some level of pain. “Sometimes tears come to my eyes,” says Rev. Walsh. “I’m self-conscious about it, afraid people will think I’m grieving or that I’m a sentimental old fool. I guess they’d be right if they thought those things.” “Change alone is unchanging,” said the weeping philosopher. But it’s also really, really hard. Even if we’ve moved on in our minds, our bodies long for the way life was.

In the midst of the grief that comes with life transitions we have spiritual resources available to us. Perhaps most importantly we have our own capacity for quieting down, becoming still, being peaceful, paying attention, breathing. When I open worship I ask you to “find that place inside, that place where you may go when you long for comfort and solace, when you yearn for peace.” We don’t typically go there when confronted with a major life transition. We don’t typically go there when the going gets tough, when we’re in pain, when we’ve just lost our job, when we’ve just received the diagnosis, when the funeral director is talking to us about arrangements for a deceased loved-one. We’re just as likely to be screaming or panicking, passing out or curled up on the floor in the fetal position. It takes real discipline to find a place of strength and grounding inside when your sources of strength and grounding outside have just disappeared.

In C.S. Lewis’ theology, that place of quiet and stillness inside would be the door that opens to his relationship with God. But in the midst of grief he writes of that door being shut and bolted: “Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”[8]

In moments of life transition we need to stop and grieve for the life that is—for better or for worse—slipping away. We need times of quiet and stillness to say, think and feel whatever it is we need to say, think and feel about our old life before we can fully embrace the new. We need times of peacefulness and paying attention in order to break well with old habits.

Caroline Knapp wrote about her experience of finding that place of silence and stillness in community—in AA meetings. She said “When people talk about their deepest pain, a stillness often falls over the room, a hush so deep and so deeply shared it feels like reverence. That stillness keeps me coming, and it helps keep me sober, reminding me what it means to be alive… what it means to be human.”[9]And Rev. Walsh is right. We can expect tears. Because in those silent, still places, where we find comfort and solace, and even joy, there we can grieve, and in grieving well we can make ourselves ready for whatever new life awaits.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1]Heraklietos of Ephesos, “Change Alone is Unchanging,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #655.

[2]Southern, Vanessa Rush, “Expect Chaos,” This Piece of Eden (Boston: Skinner House, 2001) p. 45.

[3]Riemer, Jack, “On Turning,”Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #634.

[4]Walsh, Robert, “Tears” Stone Blessings (Boston: Skinner House, 2010) p. 6.

[5] Lewis, Thomas; Amini, Fari; and Lannon, Richard, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2000) p. 85.

[6]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 47.

[7]Knapp, Caroline, Drinking: A Love Story (New York: Delta Book, 1996) p. 5.

[8]Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 46.

[9]Knapp, Drinking, p. 256.

Miracles Abound

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“The leaf unfurling in the April air, the newborn child, the loving parents’ care, these constant, common miracles we share. Alleluia!”[1] Words from Don Cohen which he wrote in 1980 for the ordination of his wife, the Rev. Helen Lutton Cohen. They remind us that the everyday, mundane world——the leaf unfurling, the newborn child—the world all around us, the world at our finger tips is, if we’re paying attention, astoundingly beautiful; is awe-inspiring; is—though we so often take it for granted—miraculous. The everyday, mundane world is filled with constant, common miracles. As Jenn sang, in the words of rock star Sarah McLachlan, “It’s not unusual / When everything is beautiful / It’s just another ordinary miracle today / The sky knows when it’s time to snow / Don’t need to teach a seed to grow / It’s just another ordinary miracle today.”[2] Check out “Ordinary Miracles” here. I also hear echoes of that Peter Mayer song, “Holy Now,” which we hear in worship from time to time. Mayer sings about feeling sad as a child that the Biblical miracles he learned about in Sunday School don’t happen anymore, but then realizing as an adult that everything’s a miracle.[3] Check out “Holy Now” here.

Our ministry theme for August is miracles. We picked this theme knowing it’s the time of year when we offer the least amount of programming and we probably wouldn’t spend all that much time formally exploring what we mean by miracles; but knowing also that summer, like all seasons, offers its fair share of everyday miracles. I want to speak about the power—or at least the potential power—in our lives of everyday miracles. I’m making a distinction between everyday miracles and the traditional religious definition of a miracle as some extraordinary, phenomenal, even magical event attributed to divine intervention. This ought to be a familiar distinction to many of you. I’m drawing on the Humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism, a tradition that places strong emphasis on the role of reason in religion and does not answer the questions of life’s mysteries with otherworldly, supernatural answers. Miracles of the extraordinary sort do not figure prominently in Religious Humanism. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s version
of the New Testament in which he cut out all the supernatural elements including the miracles. But even without a belief system that includes extraordinary, divinely inspired miracles, one can still encounter the everyday world as miraculous.

Before the hymn I read a brief passage from Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, in which the futuristic Catholic priest, Quim, acknowledges to his futuristic scientist brother, Miro (who is looking for a healing miracle) that some supposed miracles “might have been hysterical. Some might have been a placebo effect. Some purported healings might have been spontaneous remissions or natural recoveries.”[4] Quim and Miro both make the distinction: some things are miracles in the traditional sense and, if they aren’t miracles, then they’re something else: a placebo effect, natural healing, etc. But I think the body’s capacity to heal itself—sometimes with the help of this-worldly, medical intervention—is miraculous, and I put it in that category of everyday, ordinary miracles.

Earlier we heard two summer meditations from the Rev. Lynn Ungar. They focused our attention on the summer harvest. Blackberries, “summer’s last sweetness,”[5] and watermelon: “How could you be ashamed at the tug of desire?” she asks. “The world has opened itself to you season after season. What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?”[6] Although Rev. Ungar doesn’t use the word miracle, for me she’s pointing at what it means to witness or experience a miracle. In short, miracles beckon to us. They urge us down pathways for the deepening of our spiritual lives. “What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?” Miracles are invitations into greater faith, greater hope, greater love.

As a way of beginning to illustrate this, consider that in the Christian New Testament, in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus performs miracles (the ones Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe.) Jesus cures the sick, heals the lame, resurrects the dead, exorcises demons, transforms water into wine and feeds  thousands with a few loaves and fish. Put aside the question of whether these miracles actually happened. Instead, ask yourself: why would the writers of these books include the miracle stories in their narratives? While we can’t know for sure what the writers intended more than 1900 years ago, one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that each of them was writing to a specific audience and they wanted to help that audience deepen its faith which, in this case, was the emerging Christian faith that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The writers included miracle stories in their books to help convince their audiences that Jesus was the person they said he was. The miracles lent an air of credibility and authority to their claims. The miracles helped them persuade people to join their budding movement. Certainly today there is a debate even among Christians about whether or not these miracles really happened, but that’s irrelevant here. I’m trying to tease out an important assumption about miracles. That is, if you believe a miracle of any sort has happened, that belief can strengthen and deepen your faith, hope and love. It beckons you down the path of spiritual growth. If a person sincerely believes Jesus performed miracles—and many do—that belief is likely to draw them more deeply into their Christian faith.

So what about blackberries and watermelons in the waning days of August? What about those everyday miracles? How do they beckon? How do they invite us to deepen our spiritual lives? Do they point us towards some reality or truth worthy of our faith? Mason, Max and I have been picking peaches since late July at Scott’s Orchard around the corner from us in Glastonbury. We all get so excited to pick fruit for the week; the orange-red-yellow skin so vivid, the juice so sweet. Something is beckoning. And now the apples are starting to come. Actually, the Paula Reds are almost done, but the Ginger Golds and Mcintoshes are ready for picking. What about these constant, common miracles of late summer? What invitation do they offer? If we’re going to use the language of everyday miracles—and I think we should—if we’re going to accept the idea that miracles abound in the ordinary, mundane world, then we ought to have real responses to these questions. Otherwise, this idea that “everything’s a miracle” becomes just a sweet-sounding, liberal religious cliché.  I want to know: can one’s experience of the miraculousness of the ordinary day lead to a life of greater faith, hope and love?

I believe it can, but following that lead requires a certain discipline on our part. Consider this question: What is typically on your mind and in your heart when you wake up in the morning? Does it have anything to do with how miraculous the world is? I’ll tell you what’s on my mind and in my heart upon waking these days. First and foremost, my back is sore because I threw it out this summer while walking around in sandals too much of the time, sleeping in a few too many lousy motel beds, and tossing my kids into pools and
the ocean a few too many times. So, the first thing I think when I wake up is “I need to take some ibuprofen, heat my back and stretch.” Then, like clockwork virtually every morning, my boys, who’ve gone downstairs to watch TV, start fighting. I think it means they’re hungry. But I’m not ready to get up and deal with my back pain. So I reach my leg down and stomp on the floor, which is right above the television, which is my way of saying “be quiet, stop fighting,” which unfortunately makes my back hurt even more; and while it makes the fighting stop, the ceasefire only lasts about 90 seconds, during which time it inevitably occurs to me that my vacation and study leave are almost over, that Stephany’s vacation is over—she goes back to teaching tomorrow—that the boys will go back to school in a few days—they start Wednesday—and that while I’m looking forward to getting back into our regular routine, it always brings with it a certain amount of stress and anxiety—sometimes an enormous amount of stress and anxiety.

And then, still in midst of that 90 second ceasefire, I might start thinking about the drought plaguing most of the country that hasn’t yet begun to impact the cost of food, but most likely will this fall; or the fires out west which are setting all sorts of records for size, duration & destruction; or the surge of West Nile Virus and other tropical diseases in the United States; all of which brings up my fear that this is just the beginning of the new “weather normal” brought on by global climate change. Then, still in that blessed 90 second ceasefire, I remember the ugliness of the current political campaign season, a result—at least in this election cycle—of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission which prevents the government from restricting the political expenditures of corporations and unions and which therefore has brought to the center of our political consciousness (if we’re paying attention) the strange assumption—which admittedly has a long history in the United States—that corporations are people; compounded in my mind this week by the latest right wing discourse on the difference between legitimate (I’m sorry, I mean forcible) rape and—I don’t know, is there some other kind?—and whether women’s bodies possess some magical ability to prevent pregnancy during rape; and yes, though it may be a political slogan, there is in my view a war against women happening in this nation, just as there is in my view a war against poor people happening in this nation. We’ve confirmed that corporations are people but, at least in the minds of some, women and the poor don’t quite merit that status. 90 seconds have passed and the boys are fighting again. Where’s my ibuprofen? Where’s my heating pad? Where’s my science fiction novel? I need to escape! By the way, if you’re at all familiar with Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, the third in his Ender Wiggin series, then you know it really is no escape from any of this. Suffice it to say, the last thing on my mind and in my heart when I wake up these days is the revelation that everything’s a miracle. The sun breaking through the trees beckons; birds singing their morning songs urge; fresh peaches from trees in our neighborhood sitting on the cutting board in our kitchen awaiting breakfast offer a profound invitation. Everyday miracles abound, but I’m not quite there.

I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of experience. I don’t think I’m alone in forgetting the abundance of miracles all around, in failing to hold that sense of the miraculous at the center of my heart and mind such that it’s there when I wake up in the morning. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds, when I do catch a glimpse of the abundance of everyday miracles—when I become open to how beautiful, incredible, stunning, and miraculous the world is—it’s still difficult to sustain that awareness beyond a few precious, peaceful moments.

I think that difficulty is normal for most people at different points in life. From time to time we get caught up in and focus on the things that bring stress into our lives—raising children, finances, work, retirement, illness, aging, strained relationships, concerns about our adult children, caring for aging parents, existential fears; what does the future hold?—the list goes on.  It’s easy to start feeling trapped by these things; it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed by these things; it’s easy to start rehearsing the same details, the same scripts, the same dilemmas over and over again. I suspect many of us are familiar with that kind of rut. Being in it can sap our energy and our sense of hope for the future. It can make us wonder, is there anything worthy of my faith? There was a time when I would encounter people spinning around in these kinds of ruts and think to myself, that’s not me, I’m resilient, I can handle that sort of thing, but I don’t have that reaction anymore. I don’t always feel so confident and competent. Maybe it has to do with being a father, or having a sore back. Whatever it is, I accept it and I suspect it’s normal. I suspect it’s part of what it means to mature more fully into adulthood, to start having a sense of one’s limitations. So be it. But when you add to this a palpable layer of anxiety and stress in the larger culture stemming, in my view, from ongoing economic uncertainty, from a growing environmental challenges, from frustration with our political system, from a perceived increase in violence in the larger society, from a general sense of scarcity, it doesn’t surprise me when I notice I’m not waking up to the miraculousness of the world. I’m not surprised at all when people tell me it’s hard to focus on the everyday miracles. “I’m glad those peaches taste so sweet Rev., but I’m troubled today and I may need a little more in order to get through it.”

Yes. Absolutely. But sometimes an everyday miracle is precisely what we need. This is why I used the word discipline earlier. In the midst of troubled thoughts and feelings—whatever their source may be—we need some discipline, some practice, some way of training our awareness on the beauty of the earth, on the gift of life, on the astounding, miraculous fact of our existence. Stress, anxiety, emotional ruts, racing, worrying minds, existential concerns, deep-seeded fears—all these things have their roots in many places—but they have in common a negative spiritual impact. That is, at their worst they sap our spirit. They sap our energy. They undercut our sense of wholeness. They can make us feel unwell in our bodies. They can make us feel small, incomplete and unworthy. They prevent us from recognizing our connections to a reality and a power larger than ourselves. They weaken our faith. They prey on our hopefulness. They even attack our capacity to love. In the midst of it we easily forget that all around us, everyday miracles abound. All around us are invitations to encounter the world differently. All around us, in the words of Lynn Ungar, are reminders that the world opens itself to us, season after season, and we are invited to respond.[7] “Reach gently,” says Ungar, “but reach.”[8] And when she says “reach,” I take it to mean “live.” Live the life you feel called to live, not the life your fears and anxieties dictate. Live boldly, live creatively, live faithfully, live with love at the center of your heart. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our fears but with the beauty of the earth. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our anxieties, but with our hopes. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our small, self-centered, scarcity-oriented selves but with the truth of  our connection to a reality and a power larger than ourselves, pointing us always towards lives of openness, caring, generosity, grace and dignity.

I am at heart a hopeful, faithful, loving person, who at times does not feel very hopeful, faithful or loving. But I’ve learned that if I can discipline myself to stay aware of the everyday miracles, if I can sustain a practice of noticing, observing, welcoming, naming, embracing and responding to everyday miracles, if I can wake up in the morning with miracles in my mind and on my heart, I can remain a hopeful person, a person of deepening faith, a person capable of great love. I trust you can too. Miracles abound. May we respond!

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Cohen, Don, “The Leaf Unfurling,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #7.

[2] For music with lyrics for Sarah McLachlan’s “Ordinary Miracle,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rh_48pLqA.

[3] For music with lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiypaURysz4.

[4] Card, Orson Scott, Xenocide (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991) p. 134.

[5] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 46.

[6] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[8] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 47.

 

Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly

Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] This statement, for me, begins to name the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them. When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, “you do not have to endure this alone.” When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.

Our ministry theme for July is witness. We selected this theme in part as a way to reflect further on the actions of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Justice General Assembly[2] or “Justice GA” in Phoenix last month. I will do that, but I first want to speak more generally about what it means to be a religious witness, and in particular what it means to be a liberal religious witness. Witness can and has for some of us become one of those haunting theological words we associate with traditional or conservative religion. When a preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” we know they want someone to testify about how God is making a difference in their life, how God is making their life better in some way, how God is great.

Liberal religious people in general, and Unitarian Universalists in particular don’t bear witness that way. This is a basic theological difference between liberal and conservative religious understandings of the Sacred. In a conservative religious context, if the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” and someone starts testifying about God’s greatness, everyone says “Amen!” “Hallelujah.” Everyone has, more or less, the same concept of God. But liberal religion allows for and encourages doubt, skepticism, questioning and wondering. If the liberal religious preacher were to ask, “Can I get a witness?” and someone were to start testifying about God’s greatness, you might hear “Amen, Hallelujah!” but it’s not likely.  You’d be more likely to hear someone ask (maybe at coffee hour), “What do you mean by God?”  We’d start debating the existence of God and there’d be as many opinions in the room as there are people. We don’t just join the amen chorus. We don’t all have the same concept of God. We don’t all believe in God.  We’re comfortable acknowledging we don’t really know. We ask questions.  We express doubt.

Having said that, I don’t want to sell us theologically short. While liberal religious people don’t typically bear witness to the traditional, conservative idea of God, there are many ways we experience the sacredness of life and many things to which we ascribe sacred meaning or ultimate worth: Human Beings, Family, Community, Learning, Growth, Evolution, Nature, Earth, Cosmos, Ancestors, Spirit, Breath and, for some, Gods and Goddesses. All of this works in our lives. All of this impacts our lives in positive ways. All of this is great. This is what our worship and our congregational life is all about. We do testify. All the time. We do bear witness. All the time. We just do it differently.  We use different language. “Can I get a witness?” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way it does in more conservative churches; but that doesn’t mean the Sacred is absent from our lives. It’s quite the opposite.

That’s the bedrock definition of what it means to be a religious witness—proclaiming the power of the Sacred in one’s life. But where liberal religious people are more comfortable using the word witness is in our response to suffering, especially suffering created by social, political, economic, or environmental injustices.  At the Justice GA in Phoenix the language of witness was pervasive. To bear witness was the reason we went to Phoenix. Reminder: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) holds its General Assembly every June in a different city. We don’t typically get as deeply involved in local or state issues during GA as we did in Phoenix, but Phoenix was different.

I preached about the difference in June;[3] I’ll explain it briefly for those who missed it. In April, 2010 Arizona became the first state in a string of states to pass a harsh, anti-immigration statute, known as SB1070. It gave local and state police unprecedented—and mostly unconstitutional— powers to enforce federal immigration law. It essentially made racial profiling legal (though its supporters deny this). When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, civil and migrant rights organizations in Arizona called for a boycott
of the state. At that point, the UUA had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with our GA scheduled to take place in Phoenix in June, 2012. It was a hard decision, but in the end we decided to go to Phoenix, primarily because the civil and migrant rights organizations that were calling for the boycott invited us to come. “But don’t come and conduct business is usual,” they said. “If  you’re going to come, come and bear witness to the suffering of Latino and migrant communities in Arizona. Come, bear witness against an inhumane, unjust law. Come, bear witness against abusive, unjust county prisons. Come, bear witness against a blatantly racist sheriff’s department. Come, but don’t turn away from the suffering and injustice taking place in Phoenix. Come, bear witness.

Phoenix is in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most ruthless anti-immigrant law enforcement officers in the country, proudly identifying himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”[4] County residents, especially in the Latino and migrant communities, have complained bitterly about conditions in his jails for decades, especially his infamous Tent City Jail on Durango Street, where prisoners are confined to army surplus canvass tents. The Sheriff himself has measured the temperature in those tents at over 140 degrees on hot days. Those are good days to deny water to prisoners. In 1997 Amnesty International issued a report citing a long list of human rights abuses and condemning the practices at many of the Maricopa County prisons.[5] This past May, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that it discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.[6]

At the Justice GA we heard from a woman named Isabel Chairez from the Neighborhood Defense Committee (Comites de Defensa del Barrio) of Tonatierra, an indigenous peoples’ cultural organization dedicated to community ecology and self-determination.[7] Tonatierra was one of the organizations with whom we partnered to create Justice GA. Ms. Chairez told her story of being incarcerated at Estrella, Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for women next to Tent City. She said: “Last year, for working to feed my family, I was arrested at my home and my 3-year-old daughter witnessed the police handcuffing me and taking me away. I suffered the horrible conditions at Estrella … where I spent 3 long miserable months. At the time, I was 4 months pregnant and I did not receive adequate care and treatment. We were only fed twice a day … in the morning and late afternoon …. I ate what was given to us; even then I only gained 4 pounds by the time I was six months pregnant.

“I witnessed many ugly things inside that jail. The guards yelled at the women that didn’t speak or understand English. Verbal abuse happened all the time…. In December of 2011, women sued the county for this mistreatment…. One of the hardest things for me was that I was not allowed to walk around when I started feeling uncomfortable with my pregnancy. I was confined to the bed just like all the other women.

“One of my biggest concerns with the arrests, detention, and deportation is how parents are treated like criminals in front of their children. Think of all the children that are being separated from their mothers. My daughter is traumatized from seeing me arrested and taken away. Every time there is a knock on the door, she runs and holds on to me saying ‘Is it the police? I don’t want them to take you away.’”[8]

Rachel Naomi Remen tells us: “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” On Saturday evening, June 23rd, more than 2000 Justice GA attendees boarded busses that took them to the front gates of Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail. It was a peaceful witness. We did not attempt to block jail access. We did not engage in civil disobedience. We did not confront the Sheriff or his deputies. We did not confront the small band of counter-protestors—a few of them carrying guns—expressing support for the Sheriff.  We held candles. We chanted. We sang. Our leaders and our partners spoke about the human rights abuses and suffering taking place inside Tent City. They spoke about the culture of fear and cruelty the Sheriff’s Department has established in the county. They spoke about the backwardness and injustice of SB1070. They spoke about the need for comprehensive national immigration reform that upholds the worth and dignity of all people.[9]  This was our witness. More than 2,000 UUs—most of them wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts—doing our part to draw national and global attention to suffering and injustice, lending our collective voice and power to our partners in Phoenix, doing our part to “make what is invisible, visible …. what is deniable, undeniable ….  what is unseen, seen.”[10] That night on Durango St. there was no place else in the world I would rather have been. That night I was deeply proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and inspired to be part of movement to end mass incarceration and deportation; to build a more just and loving society.

The next day there was a man on the sidewalk outside the convention center with a sign that read “UUs: What Have You Done?” which I took to mean your presence here in Phoenix has changed nothing. You have accomplished nothing. On one hand he’s right. Justice GA did not end mass incarceration and deportation.  It did not shut down Tent City. It did not arrest Arpaio. We left Phoenix much the way we found it, and many communities there still live in fear of the sheriff’s department. Some have asked what good a nonviolent witness does in the face of this kind of power. Don’t we need to take more extreme Measures?

That’s a conversation worth having, but I see three things that happened at Justice GA that the man with the sign didn’t see. First, the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona, and the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist Association built solid, lasting, accountable, relationships with people of color civil rights and migrant rights organizations on the ground in Arizona: Puente Human Rights Movement, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Worker Rights Center; Arizona Advocacy Network, National Council of La Raza, Somos Arizona, Tonatierra, Tierra y Libertad Organization and more.[11] None of these organizations can achieve its vision of a more just and loving society alone. Relationships are essential. Relationships are the essence of successful movements. This kind of relationship-based participation in a national, multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and antiracist movement for social justice is new for Unitarian Universalists. It marks a level of growth in our faith we could barely imagine a decade ago. Justice GA is over, but the truth is we haven’t left Arizona. We are still there through the power of our relationships. The justice movement our partners started is now stronger.

Second, the man with the sign does not understand that 4,000 UUs came to Phoenix and realized that the kinds of injustices that exist there could happen anywhere. It’s called Arizonafication.  4,000 UUs, myself included, left Phoenix determined to build partnerships and coalitions in our own states, determined to halt Arizonafication in our own states, determined to bear witness to suffering and injustice in our own states. The movement for a more just and loving United States of America just grew stronger.

Finally, the man with the sign missed this: Our yellow t-shirts say “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s not rhetoric. It’s not a cheap platitude. We really mean it. And while I’m sure Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies, and the counter-protestors with guns, and Governor Jan Brewer are capable of great love—loving their families and friends, loving their jobs, their mission, their state, their country—it is not a loving act to tear a mother from her child in the middle of the night. It is not a loving act to put a prisoner in a tent in the desert where the temperature rises to 140 degrees and then deny that prisoner water. It is not a loving act to confine a pregnant woman to a cot when she needs to walk. It is not a loving act to terrorize whole communities who want nothing more than to live in peace.  It is not a loving act to take pride in one’s ability to conduct racial profiling. It is not a loving heart that enjoys mass incarceration and deportation, even if it is legal. When we bear witness to all these atrocities and we say we are standing on the side of love, we mean it. Love matters. A loving heart matters. A loving community matters. A loving nation matters. If you ask me, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but some day, love wins. I believe it. What did we do in Phoenix? We did not turn away. We bore witness to love. It made all the difference.

Amen and Blessed be.

 


[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] For footage and text from the UUA’s Justice General Assembly, see: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/index.shtml.

[8] Ms. Chairez’ testimony at Justice GA is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/business/200226.shtml.

[9] Video footage and the fully text of the speeches at the Tent City witness are at: http://www.uua.org/immigration/re/ga/200252.shtml

[10] This language comes from a litany called “Why We Witness,” which was art of the Saturday evening worship at Justice GA, prior to the Tent City Witness. See: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/worship/200328.shtml.

[11] The list of our Justice GA partners is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/185401.shtml

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.

The Desert Belongs to No One and the Sky is Wide Open

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“The desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open.”[1] Words of the poet, Salah Al Hamdani. This is a sermon about borders—borders that divide people from people: not only national borders, which exist in so many cases as the results of long ago wars over land and resources—wars where might made right and the victor determined where and how the lines would be drawn; but also the borders of identity, as in the way race can become a border that divides us, the way class can become a border that divides us, the way sexual orientation, gender, age, ability, politics, religion can become borders that divide us. Still, if you take only one idea from this sermon, don’t let it be the message that people are divided. Instead, remember the words of the poet: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. The desert and the sky don’t recognize the borders we humans draw. Yes, we draw them, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We draw them, but there is also something in us—and by ‘us’ I mean liberal religious people, though I hope this is true for most people—there is something in us that rejects the idea of a divided human family. There is something in us that cannot tolerate a divided human family. Perhaps for Unitarian Universalists our sixth principle points most clearly towards this something in us: “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” There is something in us that longs to transcend the borders that divide us. There is something in us that knows the desert belongs to no one, that knows the sky is wide open. This morning I want to call forth and nurture that something in us. I want to call forth and nurture that something in us that believes we elevate our humanity and assert our dignity when we move across any border that isolates us from other human beings. This is the message I want you to hear: When it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

For me this is not only a political and social message. It is also a spiritual message.  I come back time and time again to the words of one of Unitarian Universalism’s spiritual forebears, the 19th century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “Spirit primarily means wind; transgression; the crossing of a line; supercilious; the raising of an eyebrow.”[2] Although it was not the point he was making, I have always heard in these words a claim about what it means to be a spiritual person. Like the desert that belongs to no one, like the sky that is wide open, wind knows no borders. It blows where it blows. It transgresses. It crosses lines. It picks things up from one place and puts them down in another. If spirit primarily means wind, then I say being a spiritual person means cultivating a willingness and a desire to cross the lines that separate us from the rest of life. Being a spiritual person means actively transgressing our habitual ways of thinking, our creeds and dogmas, our unexamined assumptions and conventions that keep us separate from the rest of life. To be a spiritual person means being willing to cross borders, especially those that arbitrarily and unfairly separate us from the rest of life. If you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

In two weeks I will travel to Phoenix, AZ for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly or “GA.” As some of you already know, this year’s GA is different than usual. This year, we convene in a state that is under boycott. Local immigrants’ rights organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network[3] and Puente[4] (which means ‘bridge”) called for the boycott in April, 2010 when Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. At the time SB 1070 was one of the most radical anti-immigration statutes in the country, giving unprecedented powers to state and local police, sanctioning racial profiling, and blurring the line between state and federal authority related to the enforcement of immigration law. (Similarly radical laws have been passed in other states since that time such as Georgia’s HB 87[5] and Alabama’s HB 56.[6]) Given that the Unitarian Universalist Association had already scheduled its 2012 GA to take place in Phoenix, and given that Unitarian Universalists, despite having a range of opinions on the subject of illegal immigration, generally agree that laws like SB 1070 go too far in their violation of human rights and human dignity, the call for the boycott created a dilemma. Would we go to Phoenix and bring the millions of dollars that we typically pump into the local economy during GA, thereby tacitly supporting an unjust law? Or would we pull out of Phoenix and forfeit the more than $600,000 we’d already paid to reserve the convention center and hotels?

Two months after SB 1070 became law, our 2010 General Assembly convened in Minneapolis and wrestled with this dilemma. Should we go to Phoenix in 2012? Should we go to the border, or not? In the end, we decided to go. With input from the UU congregations in Arizona—especially in Phoenix—and with input from the grassroots organizers of the Arizona boycott, and after what the vast majority of participants described as a healthy and principled debate, we decided to stick with our plan to meet in Phoenix, but agreed that this will be a “Justice GA.” Instead of conducting business as usual, we will use our GA as an opportunity to learn firsthand about the plight of undocumented immigrants and their families; to bear witness to the injustices of AZ’s immigration law, the injustices that come with mass detention and deportation; and to call for federal immigration reform that respects the human dignity not only of immigrants but of working people in general.

Our ministry theme for June is borders. We chose this theme in reference to the Phoenix Justice GA. The reference is, of course, to national borders. There is no question that our national borders have become politically and economically divisive in recent years. They have also become a spiritual issue for many faith communities. What is our relationship to people who migrate across the border, especially those who are undocumented?  How are we called to treat immigrants? Does the old Biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger?” have any bearing on this national conversation? As a society we don’t agree on the answers to these questions. Certainly not all Unitarian Universalists agree on the answers to these questions. But the Unitarian Universalist Association has taken a very bold public stance in support of civil rights and humane treatment for undocumented immigrants, and I like to think that that is something we all can agree on.

For example, last Monday the Unitarian Universalist Standing on the Side of Love campaign called attention to a tragic anniversary. In an email to campaign followers, Dan Furmansky, the campaign director told the story of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas who was tased and beaten while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol on May 28, 2010. He was 42 years old. He died that night. “A San Diego resident since he was a teenager, Anastasio was captured at the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to return to his wife, Maria, and his five children after having been deported. The incident, captured on camera, offers a chilling glimpse of his screams and pleas for his life as a dozen agents stand over him. Border Patrol has refused to release the names of the agents responsible or reveal whether those involved have been disciplined.”[7] Rojas was murdered by Border Patrol agents. The murder was filmed. The film is on the internet. But no one has been held accountable. I don’t know anything about Mr. Rojas. I don’t know the circumstances that brought him to the US as a teenager. I don’t know why he was deported 25 years later. But, in the end, none of it matters: he didn’t deserve to die for trying to reunite with his wife and children. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to support civil rights for immigrants. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to respect the human dignity of immigrants. That’s why it feels so important for me to be present for Justice GA.

Was Mr. Rojas breaking the law when he crossed the US-Mexico border? Certainly. But can any of us imagine being separated from our children in that way, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to reunite with them? Can any of us imagine being forcibly removed from our community of 25 years—a community we’ve known as home since our childhood—and sent into what is essentially a foreign land, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to return? If it were me I don’t know if I’d have the courage or the nerve to cross back, but I’m convinced my spirit would be screaming, “Go! Transgress. Cross the line.” And if I were Mr. Rojas’ pastor and he came to me for counsel—“Pastor what should I do? My whole life is on the other side of this border”—although I would not feel remotely confident in my ability to counsel anyone in such a situation, even knowing how the story ends, I simply cannot imagine advising him to stay in Mexico and start a new life. I would want him to explore how long it would take for him to legally enter the US—it would likely be decades. If he could not tolerate that many years, I would consider with him the risks of crossing because I am aware people die in the desert, and they die in custody. But in the end, the desert belongs to no one, the sky is wide open. If his spirit were crying out for him to cross (as it clearly was), I would pray with him, tell him to be careful, to carry water, to not resist if he is caught. I would bless his journey. And his death would now weigh heavily on my heart and soul.

Earlier I read Sam Hamill’s poem, “Homeland Security,”[8] in which he pokes holes in this concept which predates the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, but which entered into the nation’s political life—and its spiritual life—with new-found vehemence and vigor, with a new-found hyper vigilance in the wake of those attacks. (“If you see something, say something.”) Hamill is saying we live with a false sense of homeland; we accept a lie about what the homeland is. The homeland we secure today is built on a legacy of violence. He names “our old genocides, the Indian Wars.” He names “those who sailed west with cargoes of human flesh in chains.” These legacies of imperialism, colonialism and racism live on in us (and by “us’ I mean the American people); they have made us a people rife with borders, a people prone to strengthening borders. “We cry, ‘We!’” says Sam Hamill. “We cry, ‘Them!’” These legacies of we and them permeate the American soul. They permeate the American spirit. I’m not just referring to the physical border Anastasio Hernandez Rojas crossed hoping to reunite with his family. I’m also referring to the psychic borders—for example, the one marked by racial difference that George Zimmerman perceived Trayvon Martin to be crossing before confronting him and eventually killing him this past February 26th in Sanford, Florida. In the aftermath of such atrocities, the legacies of we and them do battle within each of us and among all of us. That is, our collective instinct to secure the homeland does battle with that something in us that seeks to transcend borders. Our collective instinct to be wary and fearful of the other does battle with that something in us that is curious about and wants to be in relationship with the other. All the ways we divide people from people—race, class, ethnicity, culture, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, politics, faith and on and on—all of it does battle with what we know in our hearts: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. All of it does battle with the notion that spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line.

The way we, the American people, speak of homeland today implies borders—strong, well-defended borders. It is not my intention to suggest that somehow we need more porous borders or that excessive airport security is not necessary to insure safety, or that the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all would become a reality if we somehow just did it. Our borders are with us for now. But that does not mean we cannot integrate Sam Hamill’s notion that the homeland is also “a state of grace, of peace, a whole new world that patiently awaits …. A taste of mind, a light flooding the garden, a transcendent moment of compassionate awareness, one extraordinary line in some old poem that reveals or exemplifies a possibility … in time … in time….”[9]  It is possible to have borders and still uphold human rights. It is possible to have borders and still respect human dignity. It is possible to have borders and simultaneously know and honor the people on the other side. It is possible to have borders that don’t tear families apart in the middle of night. That is the message of our justice GA in Phoenix.

I’m pretty sure there will always be a need for borders, that the presence of borders in our lives is, to some extent, inescapable. Nevertheless, we know in our hearts the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. Spirit primarily means wind and a parent who loves their children, if they become separated, will do whatever is in their power to reunite with them. Knowing how perilous it can be to cross borders in our time, I do not give this advice lightly: when it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, first be sure you know the risks, but err on the side of crossing.

Amen and blessed be.

 

 


[1] Al Hamdani, Salah, “In the Mirror of Baghdad,” Baghdad Mon Amour (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2008) p. 180.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 31.

[7] This quote is from Mr. Furmansky’s May 28, 2012 email. Mr. Rojas’ story and video of the tasing and beating that led to his death can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/anastasio-hernandez-rojas-death-border-patrol-tasing-footage_n_1441124.html#s=450562 and http://act.presente.org/sign/anastasio/?source=presente_website.

[8] Hamill, Sam, “Homeland Security” Measured By Stone (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2007) pp. 84-85.

[9] Ibid., p. 85.

What Safety Requires

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

See Video here.

“Building bridges between our divisions, I reach out to you, will you reach out to me? With all of our voices, and all of our visions, friends, we could make such sweet harmony.”[1] I will not be surprised at all if you find this song to be wildly out of sync with the story I read from the Rev. Tom Schade, “Troubled People in the Church,” about a man who disrupted church activities, behaved disrespectfully, made people feel uncomfortable and, at the suggestion of police, was barred from church property.[2] The song and the story are out of sync. The song is about building bridges between people who are divided. The story is about a division—between a troubled man and a church—that is, at least in this moment, unbridgeable. In a moment like this our good news that all are welcome, that each may enter as they are, hits a wall—Tom Schade calls it a brick wall. It turns out there are circumstances when not all are welcome, when not all may enter as they are. Sometimes our collective safety requires that we set limits.

When I write these words—our collective safety requires that we set limits—when I hear myself speak them—something about them doesn’t feel right. And the source of that feeling is clear to me. Unitarian Universalists gather our congregations around seven principles.[3] As is the case with any principles, we ask a lot of them.  We often embrace them as ideals. We often expect a kind of ethical clarity to emerge from them. We often regard them as pure and elegant statements of human wisdom, as essential guides for living. We treat them as inviolable—at least we aspire to. So when our safety is at stake, when we are forced to bar someone from church property, when we utter the words “You are not welcome here,” it might feel like a violation of our principles. In kicking someone out, isn’t it possible we’ve disregarded their inherent worth and dignity—our first principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve failed to treat them with justice, equity and compassion—our second principle? Isn’t it possible we have failed to accept them and encourage them in their spiritual growth—our third principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve trampled upon their right of conscience, that we’ve somehow violated the democratic process—our fifth principle? In my view the answer is no, we haven’t failed on any of these counts. We haven’t violated our principles. But it can feel that way.

Our ministry theme for May is relatedness. When I look back over my sermons from this congregational year—and really over the last decade—relatedness is a central—even essential—spiritual theme for me. The language of relatedness on my lips should be familiar to you. I often refer to the biological and physical fact of our relatedness. With every breath we take we are reminded, if we are paying attention, of our relatedness to and our dependence on the green plants and algae that convert the sun’s energy into oxygen. We would not exist in the absence of this relatedness. This is a fact. Furthermore, it is not wrong to say that we are related to the planets and the stars. We are made of the same stuff and we come from the same place—the same primordial soup—13.75 billion years ago. As the late physicist Darryl Reanney once wrote of the mysterious beginnings of the universe, “somehow, out of that mystery there exploded a fireball of unimaginable power. And this we can say confidently: all that was, all that is and all that shall be, was contained in that fireball.”[4]  I often speak—we often speak—of a oneness with all there is, a connectedness to all there is, an interdependence with all there is. Our condition is not ultimately one of separateness. Our condition is ultimately one of relatedness.

This fact of our relatedness has ethical implications. From our perception of ourselves as related to the whole of life emerges our sense of obligation to care for life. From our perception of relatedness to other people emerges our sense of obligation—even our desire—to care for other people; to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world for all people. From our perception of our relatedness to other people emerges our capacity for compassion towards other people.

Well, when our spiritual task is to perceive our relatedness to the whole of life and, in response, strive to bring justice, equity and compassion to other people—to build bridges between our divisions, as the song says—it will always feel somewhat disconcerting when we need to prevent someone from coming onto church property, when we have to say to someone, “You are not welcome.” Setting such a limit doesn’t feel very compassionate.  I had to say it to a member of the congregation I served prior to coming here. It’s a harsh thing to say. It’s a hard thing to say. It’s distasteful.  I can assure you it is the last thing clergy want to contend with. But there’s a lesson here: The ideals to which our principles point cannot always be realized in practice, especially when the health and safety of the community is at stake. And the fact of our relatedness to the whole of life—the fact of our oneness, our connectedness, our interdependence—does not mean there should be no boundaries, no borders, no limits.  Borders, boundaries and limits are also facts of life. I like the way Rev. Schade puts it: “Animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.”[5]

I confess I have an agenda this morning, and here it is: As a congregation we are about to begin a conversation which will last for many months, possibly longer, about policies to ensure congregational safety. The incident at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester didn’t happen here, but something like it could happen. No house of worship has control over who decides to visit its public events. If the incident had happened here, how would we have dealt with it? Answering that kind of question is the purpose of a safe congregation policy.

Of course, a disruptive person like that is one kind of threat to the health and safety of a congregation. There are others. The one that is most prevalent in the public mind today—and has done more to shape attitudes and practices around congregational safety than anything else in recent memory—is the child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. While there were many unique factors in the Roman Catholic structure that created the conditions for this tragedy to become as widespread as it did, I contend no religious body should consider itself completely immune from this kind of threat. It’s never the path of wisdom to convince ourselves that it—whatever it may be—can’t happen here. It is a good practice, a healthy practice, a safe practice to put in writing what our expectations are and how we intend to maintain safety for everyone.

Ever since I’ve been serving as your minister, our leadership has talked about the need for a comprehensive safe congregation policy. We began working on the policy four years ago. We’ve been moving ahead slowly and methodically. We’re being proactive rather than reactive. That is, we feel our congregation is already very safe and we’re trying to codify in writing what that means. We are not reacting to a specific breach of safety. Congregations that try to create safety policies in reaction to a breach of safety often overreact and, in a state of panic and chaos, create policies that are too restrictive and impossible to put into practice. We haven’t been reacting. We’ve been researching what works; we’ve been studying best practices. We’ve been striving for balance. Over the last five years, many people have worked on different versions of the policy. Rich Thralls led a team in writing the first draft. David Cloakey and John Saddlemire spent some time with it. Denielle Burl, who officially became a member of UUS:E this morning, did a total re-write for us last summer. Our former president, Jo Anne Gillespie, and I have prepared the most recent version, with input from Vicki Merriam, our Director of Religious Education; Josh Hawks-Ladds, Wayne Starkey, and Crystal Ross from our Personnel Committee, and the current Policy Board members. My point here is that a lot of people, over many years, have had a hand in creating this comprehensive safe congregation policy. I am deeply thankful to all of them as this is not easy material to wrestle with.

But we’re not done. We’re not officially putting the policy into practice until all of you have had a chance to read it, wrestle with it, and provide input. We want the entire congregation to be familiar with a variety of critical safety issues and how we would respond to them in the unlikely event they occurred. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible with topics that, by their very nature, are uncomfortable. For example, what kinds of behavior qualify as disruptive? (Your sense of ‘disruptive’ might not be the same as your neighbor’s.) What kinds of behavior would lead us to remove someone from membership or bar them from our property? (It is unlikely it will ever happen, but having some consensus around this as a congregation—and writing it down—is one of the structures that will ensure it will never happen.)

It gets more uncomfortable: What if someone who has been convicted of a sexual offense—someone who has served time in prison—wants to start attending services and other activities? Can we welcome such a person and maintain safety? (Congregations have had to deal with this very situation.) Even more uncomfortable: How do we respond in the event that some kind of abuse takes place on our property or at one of our programs? Do we know our obligations under state law when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse? And finally, while we already require criminal background checks as part of our hiring process, there are some congregations that now require them for any volunteer who works with children. We aren’t proposing that now, but should we move in that direction? These are hard questions to answer, but being a truly safe congregation requires that we answer them, together.

There was a time when congregations never talked about these kinds of issues. People could barely conceive of these things, let along imagine they could happen at a church. People who did dare to talk about them found themselves discreetly and not so discreetly shushed. Today, we can imagine them. They’re in the media with great frequency. They’re in the public consciousness. We do ourselves a great service by talking about them and agreeing collectively what we will and will not tolerate and how we will respond to breaches of safety in the unlikely event they occur. As we have these conversations I expect to find, and even encourage, a range of opinion and some amount of healthy conflict around how much freedom to allow and how much freedom to curtail; around where the rights and needs and conscience of the individual bump up against the rights and needs and conscience of the community; around how much skin, bark and shell we require in order to ensure safety.

Liberal religious congregations like ours are places where freedom matters: freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, freedom to search and explore, freedom to question, freedom to doubt, freedom to engage with others, freedom of expression, freedom to speak (as in from this pulpit), freedom to love who we love (whether straight or gay). We deeply value freedom. Some might feel that in the act of naming limits on behavior in a safe congregation policy we might be putting ourselves on a slippery slope—that if we can put limits on certain egregious behaviors, perhaps we will feel emboldened to put limits on less egregious behaviors and our freedom will slowly begin to whither. We will slowly stifle its essence and its power in our lives. So what’s the right balance? Because we also know freedom suffers when people don’t feel safe. If, for example, someone rudely dismisses you in an angry and threatening tone every time you speak, you likely won’t feel free to speak. We could argue that the person who treats you this way has the freedom to speak to you however they want—this is a free church—but if the result is the silencing of your voice and the diminishing of your spirit, then we don’t have safety and the congregation is at that point failing to carry out that part of its mission which says we are “an open-minded, spiritual community seeking truth and meaning in its many forms.” We don’t want a slippery slope that begins to stifle our freedoms, but we do want balance, and that means being clear as a community about what safety requires.

Rev. Schade talks about this in the context of providing ministry to people with mental illness. About the disruptive person who visited their church he asks, “is he mentally ill?” His answer?  “It does not matter; bad behavior is not acceptable, no matter the cause. This congregation,” he goes on, “includes many people who suffer with various forms of mental illness. In fact, if a church is to serve people [with mental illness], it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected.”[6] He’s right. Mental illness in adults—often, but not always—can be linked to a pervasive lack of safety in one’s earlier life. Providing a truly safe congregation is the first step to providing effective ministry to people with mental illness. We can extend that notion. If the church is to provide effective ministry to anyone, it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot pursue our ministry to its fullest. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot freely practice our religion. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we risk the erosion of our principles and the weakening of our prized freedoms.

Our relatedness to the whole of life is not just a pretty spiritual metaphor. It is a fact. When we commit to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people—our first UU principle—our commitment is grounded in the fact of our relatedness. When we commit to practices of justice, equity and compassion in human relations—our second UU principle—our commitment is grounded in that fact of our relatedness. But “animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.” Our relatedness happens in the midst of borders and boundaries; some divisions are not bridgeable; and our collective safety—the collective safety of any human group—requires the setting of limits. We look to our principles with faith and love in our hearts, trusting they are the surest path to our ideals: that all are welcome, that all may belong as they are, that we each may live according to the dictates of conscience. But we know our ideals are not reachable in all instances; we know life can me messy and harsh and we are sometimes called to make decisions and take actions that may feel like we’re moving against our principles. So we do our best. Friends, we do our best. We agree on those instances where our ideals are not practical. We establish safety as best we can. We do so, trusting that our freedoms will flourish, that our ministries will thrive.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] The Women of Greenham Common Peace Occupation in England, 1983, “Building Bridges” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1023.

[2] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012. See: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Troubled-People-in-Church.html?soid=1102662658575&aid=BBJ4iQi4cxI.

[4] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure in Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 18.

[5] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.

[6] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.

Risking Creativity

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”[1] Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”[2]

Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts.[3] He also says “creativity is our natural state.”[4]

I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?

This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.

This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.

So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.

Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”[5] I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.”[6] Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.

Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”[7]

This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.

But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given.  The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider.[8] One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.

This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.

In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”[9]

We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us.[10] Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.

[2]Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.

[3]Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.

[5]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.

[7]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.

[8] Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.

[9] Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-33.